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What is frostbite?

In cold temperatures, skin that isn’t properly covered or protected can freeze quickly. When skin freezes it’s called frostbite. The most common body parts to get frostbite are the cheeks, ears, nose, hands, and feet.

  • Skin will first become red and swollen and will feel like it is stinging or burning.
  • If the skin doesn’t become protected or warmed, it will start to feel like it's tingling and will look grey.
  • If the skin freezes, the area will have no feeling and will be shiny and white.

Frostbite can happen in cold wind, rain, or snow. Once a part of the body has had frostbite, it’s more likely to happen again.

How can I protect my child from frostbite?

  • Check the temperature and windchill factor (the wind makes the temperature feel even colder outside). Do not send your child outside to play if the temperature or windchill is reported as -27oC (-16oF) or lower. At these temperatures, exposed skin will begin to freeze. If you care for a group of kids, it might be hard to ensure they are all safe from frostbite at these low temperatures.
  • Don’t let your child stay outside too long in the cold. Have him come in for breaks and to warm up.
  • Dress your child in layers of clothing that can be put on and taken off easily. Make sure as much skin as possible is covered in cold temperatures.
  • Children should wear a warm hat that covers the ears. Most body heat is lost through the head, and ears can be easily frostbitten.
  • Mittens are better than gloves in really cold temperatures because your child can bunch her fingers together inside the mittens  to help keep them warmer.
  • Provide warm, waterproof boots that are roomy enough for an extra pair of socks and to wiggle toes.
  • Warm clothing should also be safe. Remove drawstrings or cords from clothing that might catch on play equipment. Velcro closures, snaps and zippers are the safest fasteners. Use a neck warmer instead of a scarf, and mitten clips instead of strings. Scarves and mitten strings can catch on play structures and strangle a child.

How do I treat frostbite?

If your child comes in from outside complaining that hands, feet or other body parts are sore, here’s what to do:

  • Gently remove any clothing covering the area.
  • Put your child in dry, warm clothing.
  • Slowly warm up the area by gently covering it with your hand.
  • Use warm (not hot) water to slowly warm affected body parts.
  • If your child’s hand is frostbitten, place it in his opposite armpit to warm.
  • Do not massage or rub snow on frostbitten skin.
  • Seek medical advice immediately if your child’s skin is white, waxy or feels numb.

Source: Well Beings: A Guide to Health in Child Care (3rd edition)

Reviewed by the following CPS committees:
Public Education Advisory Committee

Last Updated: November 2012